On March 1, 2019, history came full circle. In an epochal development, India participated as the “guest of honour” in the 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Abu Dhabi. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj represented India at the meeting in response to an invitation from Foreign Minister His Highness Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates. Coming within days of the Pulwama attack by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and the retaliatory Indian airstrike, her presence at the OIC held exceptional significance for India’s relations with the OIC.
In a magisterial address that symbolized the self-confidence of Naya Bharat (New India), Minister Swaraj took the high ground and congratulated the OIC on completion of 50 years and for its rich contributions, but more importantly, issued a rallying cry about the adverse impact of terrorism in West and South Asia and called for the dismantling of infrastructure that provides shelter and funding to terrorists. She urged the OIC to make the right choices in a world in flux, and to work together with India, a rising economic power, to promote peace and development. The Indian ethos of peace and non-violence and India’s syncretic culture that includes a long history of Islam, were important highlights in a speech that was bound to be thought-provoking for the gathering.
The importance of the invitation to New Delhi lies in the fact that India attended an OIC meeting for the first time since the diplomatic embarrassment at the first Islamic Summit in September 1969 held in Rabat, Morocco. India was invited to be “represented at the government level” to attend the summit but eventually was kept out of the final session which adopted the communique due to opposition by the then Pakistani President General Yahya Khan. The Pakistani leader had taken exception to the participation of an official delegation of the Government of India instead of a representation from “the Muslim community of India”. In 2019, however, Pakistan failed to block India’s participation and, in an unprecedented act of pique, chose to absent itself at the plenary session of the conference. Pakistani theatrics did not cut much ice with either the host UAE or with other OIC members including Saudi Arabia.
In addition to its historical significance, India’s participation in the OIC meeting is important on four counts. Firstly, ever since the OIC’s inception, Pakistan has used the platform to spread canards about the so-called mistreatment of Muslims in India and to alienate India from the Islamic world. Moreover, Islamabad has used the forum to internationalize issues concerning Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). At Pakistan’s initiative, the OIC has established a ‘contact group’ on J&K, which has facilitated the adoption of several ‘resolutions’ and ‘special declarations’ that are critical of India. The pattern has been repeated at OIC meetings almost every year since the 1990s. For example, the 45th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers held in Dhaka in May 2018 adopted a ‘resolution’ (No. 8/45-POL) on the J&K issue emphasizing “that Jammu and Kashmir is the core dispute between Pakistan and India and its resolution is indispensable for realization of the dream for peace in South Asia.” Moreover, OIC has at times asked India to allow “fact finding” teams to visit J&K to investigate alleged human rights violations. New Delhi, expectedly, has taken umbrage and rebuffed these as interference in its internal affairs. Although Indian participation as “guest of honour” did not lead to a change in the OIC’s position on J&K, and Islamabad did get the OIC to adopt a resolution (No. 10/46-POL) referring to the internal situation in Jammu and Kashmir, the fact remains that unlike the 2018 Dhaka Declaration, the Abu Dhabi Declaration eschewed the customary reference to the dispute.
Secondly, the OIC has established itself as the collective voice of the Islamic world based on its core aim of strengthening the “unity and solidarity” of the global Muslim community (the Ummah). Pertinently, the OIC Charter entails the organization “to assist Muslim minorities and communities outside the Member States.” Indian Muslims, even though they number the third largest in the world, have been clubbed under this category for long. At Pakistan’s behest, the OIC has tended to tag Muslims in India as ‘victims’ of state policies and clubbed them with other minority Muslim communities around the world which have been suppressed, such as the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of China, the Chechens in Russia and the Moro community in Philippines. India has the strength and resilience of a democracy backed by strong constitutional provisions and a vigilant judiciary to address all issues in a fair manner. The situation in India simply cannot be equated with the organized and structural discrimination and violence faced by Muslim or other minorities in many countries, including in some OIC member states. The Indian participation in the OIC’s Council for Foreign Ministers meeting in 2019 provided New Delhi with a unique opportunity to set the record straight.
Thirdly, the invitation underlines OIC’s exploratory overture to India to associate with the grouping in some formal capacity. The debate is not new. In 2003, Qatar had for the first time raised the issue of changing the OIC’s position on India during the 2nd Extraordinary Islamic Summit held in Doha. Subsequently, in 2006, shortly before he visited India, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had stated in an interview that India should have ‘Observer’ status in the OIC akin to that of Russia. More recently, in May 2018, Bangladesh had raised the issue during the 45th Council of Foreign Affairs Conference while discussing the question of reforming the OIC and had received the support of many members, including Turkey, which have traditionally supported the Pakistani stand on India in the OIC. No doubt, the changing global situation is one of the factors behind the OIC’s overture to India, but it is also a result of the OIC realizing the implications of excluding one of the largest Muslim communities in the world from its fold. Moreover, the OIC has since the early 2000s adopted an introspective stance and gradually moved to give priority to a developmental agenda. This was first visible in the 3rd Extraordinary Session of the Islamic Summit held in Mecca in December 2005 when the OIC adopted the Ten-Year Program of Action (2006-15) (TYPOA). The trend has continued, with the adoption of the ‘OIC-2025: Program of Action’ at the 13th Islamic Summit held in Istanbul in April 2016.
Above all, the invitation is a recognition of India’s economic achievements and its enhanced status as a rising global power. As a nuclear power and as the world’s fastest-growing large economy, India has certainly come a long way since it embarked on the path of economic reforms in the 1990s. Today, it is the third largest global economy (in terms of Purchasing Power Parity). It has enjoyed high levels of sustained economic growth for several years amidst a global economic slowdown. Its diplomatic outreach has been dexterous and well-recognized. India is now a member of most of the important international groupings. It has taken initiatives on issues of global significance such as climate change, building an International Solar Alliance and calling for an international coalition for building disaster-resilient infrastructure. Above all, it has advocated concerted action against terrorism through the early conclusion of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). Simultaneously, New Delhi has established strong and friendly relations with important global and regional powers, including members of the OIC. That the OIC no longer wishes to ignore India is a logical corollary of these developments.
Options for India
While the recognition accorded to India is important, it also raises a number of questions for New Delhi. Should India enter into a formal association with the OIC, in case such an invitation follows, and what should be the nature of such an association?
Article 3 of the current OIC Charter (adopted in 2008) stipulates that “any State, member of the United Nations, having Muslim majority and abiding by the Charter, which submits an application for membership may join the Organisation if approved by consensus only by the Council of Foreign Ministers on the basis of the agreed criteria adopted by the Council of Foreign Ministers.” However, out of the 57 current members, 11 including Ivory Coast, Guyana, Togo, Suriname, Mozambique, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Uganda, Guinea-Bissau and Gabon do not have Muslim majority. Moreover, Article 33 of the OIC Charter, which describes the rules of procedure and voting, states that “if consensus cannot be obtained, decision shall be taken by a two-third majority of members present and voting unless otherwise stipulated in this Charter.”
This means that for India to become a full member, special concession has to be invoked as in the case of other Muslim-minority states that became OIC members.1 Furthermore, Article 4 of the current OIC Charter provides for “Observer status to a State, member of the United Nations,” and the decision on this has to be “taken by the Council of Foreign Ministers by consensus only and on the basis of the agreed criteria by the Council of Foreign Ministers.” Currently, the OIC has five Observers including Russia, Thailand, the Central African Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Northern Cyprus.
Should India look at full membership or only seek Observer status? Or should New Delhi continue engaging with important OIC member states, as it is doing now, without any formal association with the OIC? A decision should be based on what optimally serves India’s national interests. If India is invited to join and accepts full membership, it will correct the historic anomaly of 1969 and may provide it an opportunity to deny Pakistan the use of the OIC to spread anti-India propaganda.
However, given the current state of relations between India and Pakistan and the sensitivities of managing their own domestic public opinion, OIC members are unlikely to offer India full membership. It would also be difficult to pull off since such a proposal would vehemently be opposed by Pakistan from within the OIC.
On the other hand, Observer status does not entail voting rights, and Pakistan will continue to embarrass India by raising the J&K dispute in the OIC even if India had Observer status. Therefore, in the given circumstances, the best option would be for India to continue to work with individual members of the OIC to establish friendly relations and deepen bilateral cooperation, and work to negate the machinations of Pakistan within the OIC ranks.
1.The likely reason for this could be the 1972 Charter of the OIC being silent on the size of the population and stating that “every Muslim state is eligible to join” and membership application had to be approved by the Council of Foreign Ministers by “a two-third majority.” Most of these countries are least developed countries and likely sought membership to gain financial benefits; the OIC, in turn, gained more members. However, the new Charter adopted in 2008 limits membership to states that are “member of the United Nations, having Muslim majority and abiding by the Charter” and their applications has to be “approved by consensus only by the Council of Foreign Ministers” (emphasis added).